• How to tell portraits that tell a story

Finding the Story Within the Portrait

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To take a portrait, the photographer must embrace an immense responsibility in telling the story of their subject. Portrait photography, if used correctly, can inspire universal empathy in the frame and transport the viewer into another world.

Words and Photography by James Caswell

Portrait photography demands a harmonious collaboration between subject and artist. Celebrated writer Susan Sontag, in On Photography, wrote “the image must exist in the photographer’s mind before the negative is exposed”. For portraits that tell a story, it is the photographer’s responsibility to see the narrative form and use techniques to amplify that story.

Subject and Direction

To begin your journey in narrative portrait photography, you – the photographer – must decide on the subject. The model in the frame is an obvious start but it’s your job to find the story. Communicating with your subject and using self-experience to empathise allows the walls to be broken down and your creative direction to be better received. Once again, the story in the frame is a collaboration of what is and what one wants to be represented. Building this connection will help in making the portrait more believable.

Here are some questions to get you started:

1. What’s been on your mind today?

2. How does this space make you feel?

3. What aspect of your personality do you want to come through in this photo most?

“The correct action choice gives the subject purpose and further cements the story that is being told. It’s important that these actions are believable in context.”

Environment, Action and Technique 

Whether in a bedroom or a bustling city sidewalk, the environment you place the subject in is pivotal. It works in equal parts with the model to give context to the frame. This environment should be carefully curated and dressed to only include objects that progress the story along. For example, if the subject is feeling isolated, create a bare scene with little to fill the frame other than the model’s loneliness.

Once you’ve finalised the environment of your shoot, you can begin thinking about what actions will best communicate the story. Would it suit the narrative best for your model to be running, doing chin-ups, cutting up fruit, or staring directly down the lens? The correct action choice gives the subject purpose and further cements the story that is being told. It’s important that these actions are believable in context.

Before you click the shutter, use your knowledge of photography techniques to exaggerate your choice of environment and action. Composition and perspective are two techniques that should never be overlooked. Will your subject tower over you, displaying power and control? Or will they sit deep within the frame, allowing the carefully curated environment to swallow them? These considerations are crucial in the making of a great portrait.

Gear and Lighting 

It goes without saying that the correct lens and filter choices can help elevate your storytelling, so come prepared with a few options in your camera bag to adapt to where the story takes you.

Here’s a summary of the storytelling devices you can yield from common pieces of gear:

1. Wide angle lenses give more context to the viewer and are useful when the environment is integral to the story.

2. Telephoto lenses will pull in tighter around the subject, creating background blur and allowing you to create more connection between the viewer and the model.

3. An ND filter reduces your camera’s light intake, creating more dynamic shots by allowing for motion blur or a shallow depth of field to highlight just one element of a scene. Here’s some more info on why to use an ND filter for portrait photography.

4. A CPL filter will enhance contrast and saturation in your photo. This works well if you’re wanting your subject to look bold and lively.

“A good portrait has the ability to tell a story of life as it truly is.”

Lighting should only be used to compliment the story being told. Be reserved. Think about what needs to be highlighted and what can fall to the shadows. For portraits that highlight the subject’s emotions, it can be helpful to shine clearly on the expression of the model, but all rules can be sacrificed or twisted to assist with the narrative.

A good portrait has the ability to tell a story of life as it truly is. As you capture your own snapshots of existence, the main takeaway is to find the narrative in the frame, and ensure every decision you make puts that narrative in the spotlight.

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James Caswell

James Caswell is a Brisbane-based photographer and creative director. Caswell’s portfolio showcases his own unique, dynamic portraits and quick snapshot live imagery in fashion and music. He has had features in LNWY.co, CONTROL zine, and Gum Magazine.